Last week’s tragic terrorist attack on the Boston marathon was a grim reminder that, while our homeland is safer today than it was before the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans cannot take that safety for granted.
The fact that we have not suffered such an attack in nearly eleven and a half years reflects the skill of our counterintelligence agencies, the FBI, and the brave men and women who are on the front lines of keeping their fellow Americans safe.
But it reflects, too, the policies put in place by the administration of President George W. Bush, whose presidential library opens this week in Dallas, Texas. These policies include establishing the director of National Intelligence, National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland Security, and expanding the FBI’s mission from just investigating terrorist attacks to preventing them.
To President Barack Obama’s credit, he abandoned much of his campaign rhetoric on terror issues — he criticized his predecessor over Guantanamo Bay and electronic surveillance, but largely maintained those policies once in office.
Of course, Mr. Obama has more faithfully adhered to his campaign criticisms of his precedessor on most other fronts, to the detriment of our economy and American workers. Over Mr. Bush’s tenure, our national debt averaged 38 percent of GDP, a result of holding average annual deficits to 2 percent of GDP, and federal spending remained below 20 percent of GDP in six of his eight years in office. (Only one other president in the past 40 years was able to reach such a low level, and for fewer years).
In stark contrast, federal debt as a percentage of GDP has doubled to 76 percent under President Obama, a result of federal spending averaging nearly 24 percent of our economy and annual deficits averaging more than 8 percent of GDP during his time in office.
Mr. Obama’s spending and accompanying increase in our debt has been part of a lackluster recovery that has stifled job creation, where he also pales in comparison to Mr. Bush, who presided over an average unemployment rate of 5.3 percent (the second strongest of the past seven presidencies) and saw jobs grow steadily for four years from 2003 through 2007. In fact, the highest unemployment rate of any one year in Mr. Bush’s two terms (6.3 percent) is more than a full point below the lowest annual rate of Mr. Obama’s.
Everyone concedes that Mr. Obama came into office facing the challenge of a financial crisis, but most seem to forget that Mr. Bush faced a recession upon entering office in 2001, and significant economic shocks during his presidency (including 9/11, oil-price spikes, and corporate-governance scandals) and a financial crisis at the end, yet still presided over consistent economic growth.
It’s also worth noting that, beginning in 2002, the Bush administration sought authority from Congress to more stringently regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s finances, which were at the core of the financial meltdown in 2008. Unfortunately, his reform efforts were stymied by members of Congress (to be fair, including some in his own party), including a junior senator from Illinois who benefited substantially from Fannie Mae contributions in 2004.
Health care is another area where Americans were much better off under Mr. Bush’s policies than the approach taken by Mr. Obama, who jammed through on a party-line vote an unpopular health-care bill that will far exceed cost projections and deny Americans choice in health-care coverage. By contrast, in enacting the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, Part D, Mr. Bush garnered bipartisan support and structured the program to benefit from competition, resulting in average premiums for seniors today at $31 per month, well below the original estimate of $35 per month for the program’s first year. The administration also added preventive-screening programs to Medicare that help diagnose illnesses earlier and contain costs.
Ten years ago, the Congressional Budget Office projected the cost of Medicare Part D in its first decade would be $551 billion. But because of the preventive elements of the bill and the market-competition framework, the actual cost has been about $358 billion, 35 percent less than forecast. The Bush administration expanded consumer choice and competition for health care for seniors, providing private Medicare Advantage plans to 10 million people by 2008. While the number of Americans enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans has now reached 14 million, the health-care bill passed in 2010 by the Obama administration cut over $300 billion from this program to fund the Affordable Care Act.
Nearly 7 million more Americans now have health-care coverage through health savings accounts that were created under the Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003, which also created Part D. The number of individuals covered by HSA-eligible plans at small businesses increased by 70 percent in 2008 alone. In 2012, 13.5 million Americans had chosen to be covered by HSA-eligible plans.
Had Mr. Bush’s second-term efforts to reform Social Security and immigration policies been successful, it’s fair to argue that our country and the Republican party would be in much better shape today. Seven years after these efforts failed, many of his proposals are at the heart of current efforts to address these two critical issues.
Like hundreds of my former colleagues from the Bush administration, I’m excited about the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library this week. We’re looking forward to seeing the man we were privileged to serve as he served our country with honor and commitment. We appreciate his respectful tone in debate and his decency toward those who worked for him.
I’m not alone in feeling that I was a better person after 20 months at his side. And we look forward to the day when the facts about his time in office are more widely understood. Hopefully, scholars will avail themselves of these facts at the archives of this new presidential library.
— Ed Gillespie was counselor to President George W. Bush from June 2007 to January 2009.